Sarawakian-born Jacqueline Fong has an irrepressible quality about her that is almost infectious – the moment she steps into the room, the vivacious and bubbly Scorpion and Dragon star sign lady turns on her natural charm without so much as batting an eyelid. Conversations with her border on the witty, and she is never short of an opinion.
However, Fong is naturally down to earth which adds to her natural charms. Although she tries to shun the limelight, the attention she generates by way of her career achievements is nothing short of making the news, she having been featured recently in a couple of magazines recently.
Certainly, Fong is no ordinary gal next door. Throwing caution to the wind, she did the unthinkable for someone entrenched in investment banking giving it all up to venture into starting a hotel business which she admits is not a natural career progression chart for most.
After all, at 41 years of age, she is today the Director of Batik Boutique Hotel Sdn Bhd which manages three separate accommodation properties namely the Batik Boutique Hotel and 360Xpress City Center Hotel in Kuching, Sarawak as well as BBBunkers in Damai Beach, Pangkor. Altogether, there are 140 keys while the total headcount for all three properties is around 30 people.
Adding another feather to her cap of achievements, Fong is co-founded a social enterprise focusing on preserving heritage craft Tanoti Sdn Bhd which is an enterprise concentrating on songket weaving as a craft.
“Tanoti is community of 20 people operating within its core business. It also has a community initiative whereby no less than 100 artisans from 20 villages benefit from our work in developing the rattan basketry craft,” enthuses Fong in vivid detail.
These are early days for Fong, venturing into these businesses, stating candidly “This is me still living my chance!” For the moment, she says she is not planning to embark on other future projects as of yet.
When quizzed whether she consider herself successful as an Entrepreneur, the irrepressible go-getter humbly states that she thinks she is far from being a successful Entrepreneur in the “eyes of many”.
“But to me, I think I am a very lucky Entrepreneur as I am surrounded by people who love and support the causes that my businesses run on,” she affirms positively.
“To me, being an Entrepreneur means believing in myself and having the confidence in my chosen path. Embarking on entrepreneurship means not allowing yourself to have a safety net.
Fong admits her days working from 1997 to 2001 as Assistant Manager at Utama Merchant Bank Berhad and from 2001 to 2015 as Director of Investment Banking, CIMB Investment Bank Berhad varies extensively from her business operations. This because she realises that the livelihood of her staff depends on the success of each day’s business performance. Hence, the more effectively the businesses runs daily, the stronger the company will be in its ability to sustain their livelihood.
“At the end of the day, the conscience must remain pure. Always.”
QUICK SNAPSHOTS WITH JACQUELINE FONG
How did the hotel business take off and what was the inspiration behind it?
I started the hotel business as a muse. It was the culmination of my many travels and my appreciation of the accommodation being a destination in itself. Although many admire the architecture, interior design of the hotels and facilities in the property,
I was most impressed with how smaller properties make much better tourism ambassadors as they bring their guests closer to the real people. One property which left a deep impression on me was a small 16-bedroom in Sultanahmet, Istanbul. The owner of the property was most engaging.
In fact, many guests return repeatedly year after year, just to interact with him and the company that he attracts. The Batik was modelled against the Kybele as it exudes the vibe, cosiness and the ever-generous insights into the city.
When did you realise it was time to start your unique projects
Rewinding back to several years before, I was seconded to Jakarta in Indonesia.
Being an expatriate for the first time, I embraced everything about my new environment. The strongest impression I obtained was from the textiles of this land. I quickly became a fabric enthusiast and this interest continued until today.
My hotel is called Batik Boutique Hotel after my newfound affinity towards Indonesian batik tulis. Similarly, I was drawn to the idea of taking over a weaving workshop purely because I knew that our handcrafted textile industry is indeed on a decline and I was presented with the priceless opportunity to participate in rebuilding songket weaving as a craft.
From counting ringgits to building your own little empire, did your banking days help you fashion your business setup?
Throughout my years in banking, I became very good at analysing business plans, financial models and writing proposals. These skills helped me tremendously when I decided to venture into each business.
How is what you are doing now different from your earlier years working at CIMB?
It is extremely different because I know that many livelihoods are depending on the success of each day. I am aware that the more effectively I perform each day, the stronger the company and its ability to sustain the livelihoods of the people it employs.
Did you have a tug-a-war in your heart in terms of making the shift from these two industries?
Only superficially because after working for almost two decades, I had become used to receiving my monthly pay cheque. But I knew that I needed to evolve. Hence, I had to decide to make the move as soon as I felt ready.
Was it difficult to shift from a Banker to an Entrepreneur?
In my capacity as a banker, I was already made aware of the business of banking. Each respective team and department had its profit and loss (P&L) to manage and our job was to work towards key targets. As an Entrepreneur, the difference is that these targets are set by myself and our P&L meant more than just our right to a bonus… It meant our ability to continue our existence or our propensity to expand.
How did you leverage on your expertise and experience from your banking days to running your own hotel business? How did the Eureka moment come about for your hotel?
Over the years being part of a large corporate structure, I observed management styles and made mental noted on what elements I should borrow and what I am happy not to see again. I have decided that my businesses shoud be run by intuition: If it feels right, then it should be.
This is the complete opposite from having formularised strategies and performance indicators which defined my banking life.
My businesses are designed in such a way that their objectives are to positively impact everyone they connect with in order to build a strong community and have long-lasting relationships with these parties. Our customers become friends, our vendors become family and our partners become our firm allies.
How important is it to you that businesses should play a role in the community?
Every business should be conceived with a core objective to solve a problem so that it can positively contribute to the community. Businesses which become more influential and/or earn more money should further develop Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) initiatives by way of charity or supporting the well-being of the community.
How much more profitable or less are these two businesses as compared to your banking days?
For sure, my banking days were more financially enriching to me. The difference now is that the wealth is spread across to empower the people whom my businesses support.
What is the most challenging as well as most rewarding parts of the business?
The challenging part is when we let our problems overwhelm us and we don’t have a way out. The most rewarding part lies with us constantly building new relationships and learning new things which will enrich our lives on many different levels and in many diverse ways.
Looking back, would you have preferred doing things in reverse for example being an Entrepreneur and then becoming a banker?
I believe that we always do what we believe is best for ourselves at any one particular time. On this basis, I stick by my decisions so there’s no looking back for me.
Any tips for budding Entrepreneurs?
Passion should drive your business, not money. Don’t get caught up with making money because once you get bored, your business will not be able to survive your boredom and your existence will no longer be required.